The Silent Suffering: Signs of Unresolved Childhood Trauma in Adults

The events of childhood profoundly mold a person’s adult identity. Childhood trauma is, unfortunately, common, with between 15-43% of girls and 14–43% of boys experiencing an adverse childhood event (ACE).

According to the National Center For PTSD (NCPTSD), 3-15% of girls and 1-6% of boys develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as a result of one or more of their ACEs.

PTSD requires years of therapy and work to overcome, but first, one has to know they are suffering from it. Verified statistics on how many adults suffer from PTSD are not available for a variety of reasons, but it’s estimated that 6% of the population is afflicted by the disorder in any given year.

Many simply do not seek treatment, and during traumatizing events like a pandemic, a war, or a natural disaster, the number of people suffering can fluctuate.

While not everyone remembers all the ACEs that occurred in their early years, here are some things to look out for as an adult that may mean you need to talk to a professional. 

What Causes Childhood Trauma?

While childhood trauma can be caused by physical, emotional, or sexual abuse, it can also be caused by neglect, natural disasters, or community violence.

According to Brittany Loggins, writing for VeryWell Mind, there are several factors that can exacerbate childhood trauma. Ethnicity or race can play a part, either as a result of cultural differences altering how a child reacts to trauma or due to racism or racial violence. 

A child’s developmental level can also play a significant role, says Walden University in an article about childhood trauma. “Even though adults experience trauma, too, maturity helps them process the events more effectively and return to a sense of normalcy. For children, early-life traumas can actually alter their young brains and result in developmental and behavioral problems.”

Another factor to take into account is how many ACEs a child has experienced. The more trauma a child undergoes, the more likely they are to develop mental and physical health problems later in life.

Socioeconomic resources also matter. Children who come from low-income households are more likely to suffer ACEs and less likely to receive treatment, says the American Psychological Association.

What Signs to Look for in Adults

“Adults who experienced trauma as kids are much more susceptible to depression and mood disorders, as well as thoughts of suicide,” according to Glen Stevens, DO, PhD, in a Cleveland Clinic podcast. “They are also likely to abuse alcohol and other substances. Finally, they are more prone to developing chronic illnesses, like diabetes and heart disease, later in life.”

Another of the hallmarks of childhood trauma in adults is a person’s attachment style, says Prof. Atilgan Erozkan of Mugla Üniversitesi in Turkey. In his 2016 study on attachment styles and childhood trauma, the professor surveyed 911 students about their history of trauma and attachment styles. The study concluded that there is a strong link between insecure attachment styles and trauma during participants’ early years.

There are three insecure attachment styles: ambivalent, avoidant, and disorganized. Any one of the insecure attachment styles can be a sign of childhood trauma. By comparison, a secure attachment style is marked by healthy self-esteem and healthy relationships with others, Loggins says.

What Do Insecure Attachment Styles Look Like?

“Insecure attachment is characterized by a lack of trust and a lack of a secure base,” says Marni Feuerman, a licensed clinical social worker, in an article for VeryWell Mind. “People with an insecure style may behave in anxious, ambivalent, or unpredictable ways.”

Those with an avoidant attachment style eschew intimacy and are dismissive of others’ thoughts and feelings. They also have difficulty asking for help from others when they need it. 

An ambivalent attachment style can make a person overly reliant on those around them, often characterized as “clingy” or “needy,” according to Feuerman. They constantly seek validation and reassurance and may be anxious or seem preoccupied most of the time. 

Disorganized attachment styles are the most common for people who have experienced childhood trauma, though it can also be a result of “extreme inconsistency.” Disorganized attachment functionally means that as an adult, a person has no coping mechanisms or healthy relationship structures. 

What To Do if You have Unresolved Childhood Trauma

“No matter when you experienced abuse in your life, it is never too late to seek help from a professional,” Loggins said. “Know that your thoughts and feelings about things that happened to you years ago are just as valid now as they were then, and it is OK if it has taken you a while to get to a point where you are ready to work on it.”

The NCPTSD also advocates for anyone suffering to get help as soon as possible. “PTSD treatment works. Those who have gone through trauma can learn to feel safe in the world and cope with stress.”

Treatments include a range of different styles of talk therapy, while for some, medication may be helpful, says the NCPTSD. “There is no one treatment that is right for everyone. Working with your healthcare provider, you can decide together which is best for you based on benefits, risks, side effects, and other preferences.”


This article was produced by TPR Teaching.

Caitriona Maria is an education writer and founder of TPR Teaching, crafting inspiring pieces that promote the importance of developing new skills. For 7 years, she has been committed to providing students with the best learning opportunities possible, both domestically and abroad. Dedicated to unlocking students' potential, Caitriona has taught English in several countries and continues to explore new cultures through her travels.

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